Tackling Bad Ag in Indonesia demands increased transparency, say NGOs, as yet another attempt to obtain information is ignored

Monday, February 25th, 2019

More than a year after a request for information was submitted, the Aceh Agriculture and Plantation Office (Distanbun) still has not released data about a plantation concession in the province, ignoring a court decision and raising questions about its motives. The case follows similar behaviour by the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning, which continues to defy a Supreme Court order for more transparency in plantation concessions.

In January 2018 the Aceh Orangutan Forum (FORA), a conservation organisation, submitted a request for information with Distanbun about a right-to-cultivate permit – known as HGU – in the province.

The Agriculture and Plantation Office is the governmental body responsible for issuing licenses for plantations in Aceh, a province in the Island of Sumatra.

After failing to receive a response, in March FORA asked the Aceh Information Commission, a public transparency body, to intervene. In October the Commission ordered Distanbun to release the information.

Still without a response, in January 2019 FORA approached the Banda Aceh Administrative Court. In early February the court decided that Distanbun must obey the Commission’s order, which has legal force.

However, in late February FORA said that the Office still refused to release the requested information. The organisation has allegedly reported the agency to the police over the violation of Law 14 of 2008 concerning access to public information.

The Aceh Transparency Society (MaTA), an anti-corruption NGO, has said that Distanbun has no reason to continue to withhold the information following the Aceh Information Commission’s order, and that HGU data must be made available to the public. MaTA coordinator Alfian has told Mongabay Indonesia that the Agriculture and Plantation Office’s behaviour raises suspicions about what they are trying to hide.

FORA Secretary Idir Ali has said that the Agriculture and Plantation Office’s attitude is contrary to the law and indicates that they are still a closed and non-transparent institution.

Lack of transparency by institutions in charge of issuing plantation permits is not confined to Aceh. In March 2017, after two years of repeated civil society requests for information, the Supreme Court ordered Indonesia’s Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning to release data, including maps, about land controlled by palm oil plantation companies in Indonesian Borneo. But this has not been enough to convince the ministry.

In August 2018 the Civil Society Coalition for Transparency, comprised of Greenpeace Indonesia, Forest Watch Indonesia, Indonesian Corruption Watch, and PERDU Manokwari, awarded a “trophy” to the ministry for its year-long defiance of a Supreme Court order.

According to Greenpeace, secrecy “contributes to corruption and mismanagement in the forestry and plantation sector.”

“If we are to halt deforestation and forest fires, we need transparency so that the public knows which companies are still acting irresponsibly,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Asep Komarudin has said.

Indonesian civil society has long complained about the difficulty in obtaining information about concessions, especially in cases where plantations are at the root of land conflicts.

HGU permits contain information about the name of the rights holder, concession area, type of commodity, and location of the concession in the form of coordinates. Indigenous communities claim that without this information it is harder to hold companies implicated in environmental damage and violations of indigenous rights accountable.

Indonesia is in the midst of a presidential electoral campaign, with elections scheduled for 17 April. The two main candidates, incumbent Joko Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto, held a debate on 17 February where environmental issues were discussed. The contenders failed to convince conservationists of their commitments to transparency.

Andika Putraditama of the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, has told Mongabay that “transparency is key in ensuring that environmental crimes won’t happen again.” But, according to Andika, “neither of the candidates used [the debate] to talk about improving transparency.”

The Aceh provincial government has been criticised by FORA, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and the Aceh Forest Care Coalition (KPHA), for failing to be transparent about licensing processes and to properly assess the impact of over 160 HGU permits in the province, some of which allegedly overlap with protected areas.

Image on homepage courtesy of Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia